Sunday, November 25, 2018


Ralph Breaks the Internet is a cacophony of good intentions and bad ideas all wrapped up in breathtakingly shameless corporate self-promotion. Because it's a Walt Disney Animation production it has the expected high level of production quality. The animation is brightly colorful, richly detailed and vividly lively, with genuine emotion in its characters' expressions, a sturdy stretch to their movements, and a quick wit in its visual bounce. It lacks, however, the timelessness of the studio's best work. The production is wedded to an idea that'll age like ice cream left outside on a summer day, one that's exploited for as many cringing product placements as it is good narrative and comedic potential. It takes the main duo of arcade video game characters from Wreck-It Ralph, the title guy (John C. Reilly) and Princess Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), and contrives a reason for them to travel to the internet. There they find a land that's been cleverly designed under the guidance of Zootopia directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston. There are Funko Pop-shaped avatars of humans representing browsers zipping hither and thither through a digital metropolis that's half Coruscant, half Reboot's Mainframe. There are digital sprites representing code and algorithms: a sleazy pop-up promoter (Bill Hader), a nerdy search bar (Alan Tudyk), a trendy viral video softer (Taraji P. Henson), a cool mean streets race game heroine (Gal Godot). (Disney reliably gets top notch voice performance.) 'Tis all good so far as it goes, though mired in a sort of passé techno-Utopianism, its Information Superhighway vision not nearly as dystopian as anyone reading the news the last decade would imagine now. (A few family-friendly nods to the Dark Net and ads promising "sassy housewives" merely hint at the terrors Disney dare not name.) Though there is a fine throughline in which our heroes realize the internet enables their worst selves, projecting and exaggerating their insecurities on a global scale, the name of the game is largely product placement. They fly by Twitter, Facebook and Google, crash into Pinterest, and run through EBay. And in its most astonishing feat of corporate synergy, the film's peak of both entertainment and self-promotion, Vanellope ends up at Oh My Disney dot com, where she sees pavilions devoted to Star Wars, Marvel, and classic Disney animation characters. This dizzying sequence has a few good jokes and includes a mostly funny and warm princess reunion at which everyone from Snow White to Moana shoots the breeze in a green room. They're so much fun together I wondered why Disney didn't just skip the Ralph stuff loaded up with instantly-dated web links and do a straight up Princess Avengers. So there are some good ideas here, but they're buried under an exhausting barrage of hollow references and time-stamped winking. 

A much better time spent with Hollywood extending preexisting Intellectual Property can be had across the multiplex hall in Creed II. This crowd-pleaser continues the story of Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of legendary boxer Apollo Creed best known for his fights with Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, returning for the eighth time in the role of his career), where Ryan Coogler left it a few years ago. It continues to be a frequently low-key, tender, and melancholic character piece restoring the fine emotional shadings of the earlier series' better entries. Between rousing boxing matches, shot with verve and sweat, and cut crisply and cleanly to emphasize every punch, every swing, every dodge, with strategic clarity, there's plenty of time consider Adonis's relationships with his girlfriend (Tessa Thompson), his mother (Phylicia Rashad), and his mentor, Rocky himself. As sturdily directed by Steven Caple Jr, this is compelling, sympathetic material, brought to life by Jordan's easy charisma and energy and the ensemble's naturalistic chemistry. It's a film built to care deeply and empathetically about the life of a boxer, one who is still fighting the shadow of his late father while trying to grow not only fame and skill, but the maturity needed to become his own man. So it's a finely shaded sports film, building real emotional life in its rise-fall-rise plotting, earnestly interested in its fathers-and-sons, rivals-and-family rumination. Because it cares so persuasively and persistently about its character's humanity, it's all the more effective and exciting when the bone-crunching boxing begins. I was surprised how invested I was, finding myself reacting with "oof!"s and "yes!"es at every turn of the matches. I was moreover surprised to see how deftly the movie, like its predecessor, mines pathos and subtlety out of some of the Rocky series' broader backstory. In this case, it's Rocky IV's super-Soviet boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), who here is a weary human-scale antagonist, ruthlessly coaching his muscle-heavy boxer son (Florian Munteanu), to challenge Adonis. It's part revenge, part a last-ditch effort to vicariously restore the honor Rocky beat out of him thirty years prior. It works as a sharp tension, and a compelling obstacle, while also creating sympathetic interpersonal dynamics between the Dragos without overwhelming Adonis's story. All told, the Creed movies are thus far some kind of franchise magic, spinning new gold out of an old idea that seemed tired and silly, but now is invested with all this fresh interest. 

Monday, November 19, 2018

In Real Life: CAM

Like its Blumhouse cousins Unfriended and Unfriended: Dark Web, though without their all-on-a-screen gimmick, Cam is a horror movie that treats the fears inherent in internet spaces seriously, manifesting the way digital dilemmas bleed into real world anxiety. Unlike the more supernatural bent of those other films, however, this one gets its chilling premise out of nothing more than a hacked account and a mysterious imposter. It stars Madeline Brewer as a bright young woman who makes good money doing shows on a cam site. She’s not nude, but often as close as you can be to it. She flirtatiously solicits tokens from her anonymous fans, seen only, except for a couple high rollers, as a scroll of filthy chatter sliding up the side of her screen. Even before the film’s high concept creepiness begins in earnest, the early half-hour or so is the sort of film that sharply and observantly shows a particular life not often given attention. Here is a relatively new job category, or iteration thereof, at once marginal and omnipresent, hidden in plain sight, disreputable and isolated, yet highly visible, just a click away. 

There’s great specificity in the film’s portrayal, showing her ease with the block button, her cultivation of big tippers, her prep work, showmanship and carefully undressed modesty. She pays close attention to her ranking on the site, eyeing the more popular ladies with envy, but proud of cracking the top 50 most nights. Her hairdresser mother (Melora Walters) only knows she works as a freelance web developer. Her teenage brother (Devin Druid) knows what she does, but views it from a cautious remove. (His friends’ giggling viewership is not so easy for him to handle, though.) Her life is comfortable but secretive, at once on display and in the shadows. She is safely in control and totally vulnerable. Writer-director Daniel Goldhaber’s startling and assured feature debut has such a spark of reality in this early going (undoubtedly bolstered by his co-writer, actual ex-cam model Isa Mazzei) that even if it didn’t become a horror movie it’d be a notable work. Luckily, kicking into a thriller gear churns the film’s interest in our digital vulnerability, and the ugly harassment women, in particular, receive when daring to take up space online, into a further dizzying, unsettling place. This cam girl finds her password won’t work and, while troubleshooting, notices her account is broadcasting. It’s her, but not her, and the website doesn’t, or can’t, help. She’s been hijacked by an uncannily accurate lookalike. Maybe it’s a troll. Maybe it’s a deep fake. Maybe it’s an algorithm. Maybe it's a glitch. Maybe it's all of the above. But it’s just too right and too destabilizing. This sends her on a spiral of paranoia and uncertainty, looking desperately for a solution before her life falls apart. It all culminates in a dizzying cascade of windows and mirrors, digital and real life collapsing and interacting, tabs within tabs. But all along the film's sensitivity to its lead’s emotional state makes it clear that the internet lives in a peculiar space, removed from reality and yet indisputably a large part of creating it these days. On the internet, as the old New Yorker cartoon goes, nobody knows you’re a dog. And yet our online selves become these digital doppelgängers with a life of their own that’s nonetheless a part of our own. It is real and not, a space where we are ourselves and not. And that’s scary enough.

Saturday, November 17, 2018


The Coen brothers’ return to the Western is slathered in referentiality and encased in fiction. Built as an anthology of six frontier stories, it’s framed quite literally by the turning pages of a dusty, worn book with the same title as the film: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales of the American Frontier. Each story starts with a hand turning a page to a new painted image, a fresh title, a thick paragraph of prose. They all feature characters and settings, tropes and archetypes instantly recognizable: a prospector, a wagon train, a guitar-playing gunslinger, a stagecoach. Yet as the Coens spin their tales, it’s clear these are primal stories America tells about itself, a genre that mythologizes over dark truths, the realities of which unconsciously bubble up. The brothers play up this darkness at the heart of the American character, the cruelty of mankind, the empty heroism of frontier violence, the casual and capricious rot of greed amongst interpersonal relationships, upon a landscape, and in a national character. When the title character addresses the audience in the opening scene of the opening story, he takes issue with being called a misanthrope. His explanation strikes me as apt an explanation of the Coens’ worldview as any they’ve ever delivered: don’t expect much of anyone and you’ll never be disappointed. Trust in the Coens' filmmaking, however, rarely is for naught.

Here they’ve crafted a movie that’s an embrace and critique of the chosen genre in all its varieties. It loves the tropes, and casts doubt on elisions and implications. The vision of the West articulated here is obviously fiction, attention drawn to the artifice of the frame. The stories are informed equally by John Ford and Roy Rogers, Ambrose Bierce and Jack London, Mark Twain and Washington Irving, with a splash of Poe and Dickinson for good measure. (The Coens remain among our most literary filmmakers.) It begins with a singin’ cowboy who is casually a mass murderer, and for that he cheerfully approaches life and death. The story’s bounce, and the Looney Tunes storybook staging to its visual gags, belies its seriousness of disjunction — drawing attention to the mixed messages chipper Westerns can send. The stories grow darker and more unsparing as the film proceeds, descending from its opening whistling carefree carnage to an ill-fated bank robber, then an increasingly-marginalized traveling orator, a stubborn process-focused prospector, a wagon train where a death causes some of its members to renegotiate their futures, and finally a cramped stagecoach with tense passengers. Because they could not stop for death, it kindly stops for them.

Peopled with a bevy of fine actors delivering performances perfectly calibrated to the film’s tricky tone — clever, comic, and arch, but with tragedy picking at the margins before roaring up with a wicked undertow — the memorable faces and voices carry the film’s intent. The likes of Tim Blake Nelson and James Franco float a little above the action; Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, Tom Waits and Liam Neeson play things a little more straight; Tyne Daly and Brendan Gleeson are somewhere between. It's all of a piece with a film investing increasing dramatic stakes in the violence of survival. These and others fill out frames shot in the Coens’ rigorously playful visual style, Bruno Delbonnel’s crisp, digital lensing crafting an unusually vivid unreality to the environments, real and imagined. We are used to seeing the Hollywood Wild West of its heyday with a gauzy filmic nostalgia. Here it goes through the motions, but the unsparing digital finds new, harsher beauty. We’re never not aware this is a fiction, and yet on the strength of the literate scripting and clear-eyed performances, and the typically sharp Roderick Jaynes editing that goes where the brothers do, I got involved in the character’s predicaments, felt their fears and hopes, while still seeing the artifice of their construction, as well. The Coens know the pleasures of the Western, and the real pain and inevitable doom that meets these stories at the end. This isn't exactly a revisionist Western of the kind that sprang up in the genre's decline as darker and more explicitly and self-consciously tortured, but one that revives the old style for new purposes.


With its second entry, the Fantastic Beasts series has become one of the most strangely paced film franchises. After an initial entry that felt like so much throat clearing introduction, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter prequel sequel shows up with two more hours of introductory exposition. Initially announced as a potential series of five films, it appears Rowling has shaped the whole shebang like a novel. Two films in and we’ve only seen rising action. So leisurely paced it is that a film called Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald doesn’t even worry overmuch about including its villain committing said crimes. The wizard supremacist of the title breaks out of New York’s magic prison in the zippy and zappy opening sequence, but then simply hangs out in scenic period Parisian locales talking with henchmen and underlings until the film’s final moments give him another monologue. (That this is nonetheless Johnny Depp’s best performance in years shows he can still inhabit a scene when he decides to do so.) The film develops like the setup in the early going of a pokey fantasy novel, so concerned with moving its characters into place like chess pieces on a board of world-building that’s slowly painted before our eyes. In the moment I wondered where it was going, and in the hours since I’ve asked myself why we’re supposed to accept such a slim sliver of story as satisfying. And yet I enjoyed my stay in the world, and took pleasure in Rowling’s pile-up of quirky characters, winking callbacks, and developments so convoluted and drawing upon such deep cut Potter lore I couldn’t figure out if they were surprise connections, retcons, or both. (I saw at least one critic scoff that she’s gone “full Lucas,” to which I can only say “if only.” I would’ve adored some magic Senate gatherings and discussion of wizard trade routes.) I could barely piece together who was doing what for why, but each scene — crafted by Wizarding World veterans director David Yates, production designer Stuart Craig, and costumer Colleen Atwood — is enchanting enough. 

Coasting on an author’s interest in expanding her world and an audience’s goodwill towards it, this is perhaps the first movie series that'll play better as a binge once the whole thing is out. For now we have another slice of time spent in the midst of small details hoping they’ll one day add up to a worthwhile big picture. I liked the small details in this one more than the ones in its predecessor; its tone is more even, and its character work is shorn free of the sense the filmmakers were kicking the tires of a new concept. Now hero wizard zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has grown into a continually endearing oddball center for such a spectacle, stammering and awkward, hunched and soft-spoken, but with his heart in the right place. The film finds him on the trail of a lost orphan (Ezra Miller) who turned into an inky black storm cloud at the end of the first movie. Scamander has been sent by young rascally Hogwarts teacher Dumbledore (Jude Law, with a hint of Richard Harris twinkle in his roguish eyes) who knows Grindewald is hoping to turn the poor missing boy into a pawn for evil purposes. Along the search, Scamander picks up with returning companions, some well-served by their key roles (Katherine Waterston, low-key charming with flat affect and neat black bob), others gladly along for the ride (Dan Fogler, fine comic relief with a hint of pathos), and still others (Alison Sudol) lost in an arc of which I could hardly make heads or tails. A host of other faces (including Zoe Kravitz as a Ministry of Magic agent with a dark past) appear to churn the incidents and backstory with fresh conflict and connections. Meanwhile, there’s a background simmer of growing sympathies for wizard fascism among some in the magic community that creates a mood of unease all-too relatable. (Nothing wrong with hearing Grindelwald out, one gullible witch says. Besides, his prediction that wizard rule could prevent a muggle world war sounds awfully convincing to 1927 Europe.) What does it all add up to? I don’t know yet. All I know is I basically went with it in the moment, enjoying a look in Paris’s answer to Diagon Alley and their Ministry’s archives guarded by hairless cats with huge glowing blue eyes. I liked seeing new corners of the world, found myself surprised to be charmed by the return of characters I’ve scarcely thought about since the last movie, and by the time the credits rolled I could’ve sworn we had only reached the film’s midpoint. I wasn’t ready to leave, mostly because I was basically enjoying the experience, but also because I was still waiting for the story to kick in.

Monday, November 5, 2018


One thing is abundantly clear as The Other Side of the Wind begins to unspool: here is a movie we will be thinking about as long as people want to think seriously about the movies. It's something of a miracle we can see it at all. The legendary writer-director-impresario-icon Orson Welles shot his film in the 1970s and partially edited it before his death in 1985. Ever since, it sat incomplete, the raw material locked away in a vault due to complicated legal disputes. Only now, at long last, has it been rescued and finished. (Morgan Neville's companion making-of documentary They'll Love Me When I'm Dead excellently recounts this backstory.) The result is a movie completed by editors and producers, many who worked as youngsters on the film's original shoot and postproduction, doing an approximation of the final cut Welles was working towards, an educated guess. And yet the film itself is Welles himself doing approximations and impersonations, building a wild kaleidoscope of footage, reflections within reflections within reflections. (That's an appropriate idea for a man whose career brought us memorable mirror sequences in Citizen Kane and The Lady from Shanghai.) It feels at once of its point of origin and of today. It proves Welles was always ahead of his time. After just one viewing, my head was spinning with its images and ideas, letting its novelty and ingenuity knock about my mind, slotting it into an idea of Welles' career while marveling, almost dazed, that there's a new Welles in the world. 

Like so many of his films, it has sensation of melancholy and memory throughout, starting by telling is the main character has died. He, an elderly Hollywood studio director (played by John Huston, reflecting and embodying his, his generation's, and Welles' impulses in a craggy, wily performance) grasping for relevance at the dawn of the New Hollywood, died in a car crash after his birthday party. The film is a ragged, unflinching recreation of his final day, a found-footage collage of LA excess, the old man surrounded by rings of cameras in addition to old friends, bitter colleagues, sycophants and hangers-on, young protégés and confused collaborators. (The astonishing cast includes such expert faces as Peter Bogdanovich and Susan Strasberg, and Mercedes McCambridge and Paul Stewart among many, many more.) While they trade barbs and celebrate their creativity and needle each other with vicious power plays and prickly overlapping dialogue cut quick in a jangly jumble of mixed Academy Ratio film stocks -- deep inky black and crisp crinkly white or sharp grainy pale 70's color -- the director hopes to screen a work-in-progress of his latest film. Excepts from this work are generously apportioned throughout. Its long widescreen takes of artful nonsense -- a sensual and striking goof on mid-century Euro-art-house of the Antonioni sort, Welles clearly loving the experiment of playing at directing in another style, while proving he could've just flat out done that sort of feature if he'd cared to try -- focuses on a man (Bob Random) and woman (Oja Kodar, Welles' co-writer and lover) who chase each other in various states of undress through stark mise en scene: a car in the rain, an empty house, a vacant backlot. This unfinished film-within-the-film is in need of money to be completed, hence the director screening it at his party. There's a poignancy in watching a belatedly assembled film about an unfinished film, neither director living to see where it'd end up.

Cut with adventurous Wellesian tomfoolery and grandeur, the recreation seems a logical culmination of the artistic impulses that took him to The Immortal Story and F for Fake in the final decade of his directorial career. Like those films, but taken to a new extreme, the prismatic editing is playful and aggressive. The movie runs hot and cold. The view of arts and artists is both reverent and self-critical. The approach to sex is both prudish and frank. The story is both incomprehensible cacophony and clearly razor-sharp perceptive. It's as lacerating as it is invigorating, voices and styles layered and collapsed. Their truths and fictions blur and people build each other up and tear each other down in the same instant. It's beautiful and ugly, angry and elegiac. The final image, a movie screen slowly washed out as industry, as represented by a rumbling train, rolls on. Welles creates with Wind a picture that finds its central figure in a state of decline, like Kane, lonely in a crowd, lost amid the trappings of fame while machismo and desire and riches and artistry starts to dim. And yet it's also a film of an artist in full control. It's scattered without being scatterbrained. The filmmakers who ushered it to a finished form have done their best to maintain this aggressive and circular film's wild structure. If it was released back in 1970-something, it would've been a fine expression of an oft-mistreated and mis-understood auteur making a masterful movie fitted to the times. Now the distance of decades greets it as a revelation: a creative and compelling posthumous declaration that Welles never stopped. Scene after scene is filled with shots that are startlingly fresh and dazzling in construction, building a wholly inventive film, new despite their age. From beyond the grave, he still has much to show us.

Sunday, November 4, 2018


Disney's newest live-action fantasy is The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. This movie has everything. A teenage girl (Mackenzie Foy) getting a locked bejeweled egg for Christmas as a present left behind by her recently deceased mother. Morgan Freeman sending her on a magical adventure. (He's wearing an eyepatch, making mechanical toys, and twinkling with grandfatherly wisdom.) A magical world half-Oz and half-Wonderland inside an enormous clock the girl enters in a Narnia-like fashion while searching for her egg's key. Four warring Realms built out of steampunk candy and leftover Burtonish production design ruled by the likes of Eugenio Derbez covered in flowers and Richard E. Grant covered in snow and icicles hanging like frozen snot off his face. Keira Knightley with cotton candy hair, Tinkerbell wings, and a squeaky Lina Lamont voice. Helen Mirren as a dastardly clockwork circus villain with roiling masses of mice and a nesting doll of balloony henchmen who seem to have rolled out of a Return to Oz deleted scene. A cheerfully subservient black soldier (Jayden Fowora-Knight) who is given permission to self-actualize by a white authority figure over which he continues to fawn. Ballerina Misty Copeland in lovely, if abbreviated, excerpts from the original Nutcracker ballet introduced with a Fantasia-inspired silhouette orchestra. A non-stop score slathered over everything that slips sweetly between Tchaikovsky and Tchaikovsky-esque. Rows of CG soldiers amassing here and there. Comic relief bit parts for which no one wrote actual jokes. A hero journey plot so generic and rote the movie itself hardly believes it. An overblown yet dull hectic adventure climax that not only fails to satisfy on its own, but somehow drains the magic inherent in its source material so it's nothing more than one part gentle whimsy one part mindless cacophony. Reshoots so extensive both the original director Lasse Hallstrom and studio fixer Joe Johnston get directing credits. A chipper smart-STEM-girls through-line. An opening swoop through late-1800's London that's close to the one that opens Robert Zemeckis's excellent Christmas Carol. And over the end credits: Andrea Bocelli.

It's a mess. At first I liked the baroque decorative design and charming eccentricity. But the more it sputtered along into banalities and inanities my attention well and truly drifted. Why all the effort to do something so clunky and routine with a famous ballet, blowing it out to fit awkwardly in the trend of live-action action-adventure fairy tales? Why not just make a big-budget ballet movie, a faithful and simple adaptation, and save yourselves the trouble, Disney? You'd think that'd be hard to mess up. Instead the movie is both overproduced and under-imagined, over-complicated and under-thought, with genuine enchantment and sentiment replaced by cliche and hollow artifice. What a missed opportunity.

Friday, November 2, 2018


The way Bohemian Rhapsody tells its story is such an obvious mistake you wonder why they tried it this way. I guess you could say the same for director Bryan Singer’s behind the scenes behavior, which included alleged absenteeism and tantrums that resulted in a firing mere weeks before the film wrapped. (Eddie the Eagle's Dexter Fletcher finished the shoot, though his contributions fit right in Singer's glossily hollow approach by the looks of it.) Regardless, the movie hardly reflects that turmoil, or even the turmoil of its subject: iconic rock band Queen. Sure there are drugs and sex mixed in with the rock and roll, but somehow the rock biopic has ended up one of our most prudish sub-genres, as this PG-13 affair scripted by Darkest Hour’s Anthony McCarten and Frost/Nixon’s Peter Morgan elides most of its band’s bad behavior and scolds the rest. It hardly seems fun, and only fleetingly interesting, to be a rock star, even before frontman Freddie Mercury hits rock bottom. The telling follows a formula so tired it was already a dusty old cliche by the time Walk Hard spoofed it eleven years ago. It starts with Mercury amped up for the band’s memorable Live Aid performance near the end of his life before flashing back to the group’s origins. Along the road to success we see: the early scenes in which the guys stare into the middle distance as if they know they’re etching quotes for a future re-enactment; arguments with mangers and record execs, complete with the suit who says what will be their biggest hit won't be; tour bus montages and concert snippets with city names and headlines floating toward the camera; the twinkle of inspiration as classic songs emerge basically fully formed in jam sessions. We’ve seen it all before. The only difference is Queen, and the token amount of time spent with Mercury's immigrant background. The production design and costume work is spot on. The sound design bumps and bops. The performances — especially Rami Malek's Mercury, toothy grin and lithe bulging bravado, selling the man’s sexuality in ways the movie barely does — are top notch impersonations. When they’re singing in concert there’s a fun kick. The detailed climactic Live Aid recreation is almost worth the price of admission. Shame, then, that the breathlessly stale greatest-hits behind-the-music connective tissue barely digs into characters and never textures the world with more than surface color as it rushes through the highs and lows. It fills its scenes with people who stand around speaking the subtext out loud in between fun music. If it wasn’t so deathly dull half the time it’d be pretty good.